The United States Department of Defense has accused China of seeking to expand its military network throughout neighbors of India, including Myanmar. The “2020 China Military Power Report” claims the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is planning new military logistics facilities in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan in order to “protect and sustain military power at greater distances”. “A global PLA military logistics network could interfere with U.S. military operations and provide flexibility to support offensive operations against the United States,” the report continues.
The report is merely the latest barb in an ongoing political skirmish between the PRC and the United States, rattled by China’s growing economic ties in Myanmar. An op-ed published in the Irrawaddy by US embassy chargé d’affaires George Sibley, and comments by incoming ambassador Thomas Vajda have accused China of exploiting Myanmar’s people, entangling the country in predatory loans and investments and eroding its sovereignty. China has rebutted the US accusations. In a counter-statement to Sibley’s op-ed, it accused the US of “McCarthyist bigotry” and “outdated ‘Cold War mindset'” and seeking to sabotage China’s benign efforts to promote Myanmar’s peace and development.
Although there has been exaggeration on both sides, the ongoing Chinese and US propaganda war highlights Myanmar’s strategic importance in Asia. Myanmar is China’s gateway to the Bay of Bengal, providing both access to its offshore oil and gas reserves and a maritime approach to India—one of China’s chief military rivals. Within its borders, Myanmar is a key trade partner with China, selling it vast quantities of rice, jade and gem stones, lumber and fossil fuels. And unfortunately for the US and its allies, China has a political head start in the Golden Land. US-led sanctions crippled the Myanmar economy under its former military regime, and Myanmar’s alleged human rights abuses have added new challenges to embracing Myanmar in its democratic era. The United States’ efforts to sway Myanmar against its northern neighbor may be too little, too late.